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Number of women in North Dakota Legislature follows national upward trend

Recently elected Ruth Buffalo celebrates after being sworn in on Dec. 3 to serve the North Dakota House of Representatives. Photo courtesy of Lea Black Photography1 / 2
Michelle Strinden was recently elected to the North Dakota House of Representatives. Special to The Forum2 / 2

FARGO — Back in 1922, when Minnie D. Craig and Nellie Dougherty were the first women elected to the North Dakota House of Representatives, they were part of the first “pink wave,” when a large number of women won seats in an election. The 19th amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote, had been passed just two years earlier.

Nationwide, more than 30 women were elected to state legislatures in 1922.

During the 2018 midterm elections, a historic number of women were elected to state governments. When the 2019 session starts, 28 percent of the country’s 7,383 state legislators will be women, up from 25 percent in 2017, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.

Some states are nearing an evenly split legislature. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures website, Nevada has the highest amount of women legislators at 47.6 percent. The state with the lowest percentage of women in the statehouse is West Virginia with 14.2 percent.

On Jan. 3, Ruth Buffalo and Michelle Strinden, two of the North Dakota’s representative-elects, will join 28 other women in the state Legislature. They will help bring the percent of women in the Legislature to 21 percent when the session starts, with 30 women and 111 men. That’s up from 16 percent last session, when there were 23 women and 118 men.

The leap may not seem monumental, but it’s up from 14 percent in 2011, when there were 21 women and 120 men. And it’s a 100 percent increase from 1981, when 10 percent of the Legislature was women, at 15 women and 126 men.

The majority of incoming North Dakota women legislators are living in the Fargo area. Starting in January, 17 women and 22 men will serve Cass County districts, compared to 13 women and 26 men in the 2018 session.

Buffalo and Strinden will set out on their first terms in the House of Representatives after unseating incumbent Republicans Randy Boehning and Al Carlson, who served as House majority leader. Buffalo is the first Native American woman Democrat to be elected to the Legislature.

Buffalo and Strinden listed a number of reasons to run for public office, but both said public health and education barriers motivated their decisions to enter the political ring.

As a state representative, Buffalo’s focus will be on improving healthcare access and services, including behavioral health. One of her three younger sisters was misdiagnosed with flu-like symptoms when she was 5 years old; it turned out to be pancreatitis, which nearly killed her. Buffalo's youngest sister was the victim of a fatal drunk driving incident in 2012. She was 19.

“So many things fall under access to healthcare, like for our veterans, seniors, early childhood, the behavioral health needs,” she said. “North Dakota has had an ongoing health professional shortage.”

Rising property taxes, improving safety in communities and fearing the loss of rural hospitals were primary concerns she heard from door-knocking during her campaign.

Strinden, who homeschooled her child with dyslexia for four years, said the most effective strategies to help individuals who have difficulty reading, spelling and writing can be brought into the mainstream educational system.

“We can train teachers in these types of strategies; it’s just a matter of finding resources to do that,” she said.

She’s encountered families, mainly in rural areas, who are unable to access literacy services. Dyslexia affects nearly 25 percent of students, she said.

Strinden credits her interest in politics to her dad, who introduced her to panel-discussion political TV shows when she was a child. She said her campaign success came from family and community support, as well as knocking on thousands of doors.

“All of my kids at some point or another would come along with me (door knocking), and my husband, of course, as well. It really was a family effort,” Strinden said.

Buffalo can attest to those campaigning methods, estimating she knocked on about 6,500 doors.

“A lot of people said they wouldn’t have voted had I not stopped at their door,” Buffalo said. “It shows how much work is needed to fix that, to where voting is second nature to people.”

Buffalo said it was mostly a grassroots campaign, grounded on short interactions with voters, along with a few more intimate ones.

She encountered a 98-year-old woman with little time left to live who had thrown away her absentee ballot thinking she had no use for it anymore.

“She invited me in to her kitchen table; it was a 30- to 45-minute visit. She started visiting with me and holding my hand, looking back on all her years. She said that what she’s realized is what they’ve gotten wrong is how Native Americans were treated and she wishes there was a way she could fix that,” Buffalo said.

Feedback from other women hoping to run was also inspiring to hear.

“There’s still a huge opportunity to bring balance,” Buffalo said. “The culture within our tribe is matriarchal and matrilineal, so it’s not out of the norm to have our women out in front or leading, and sometimes we get pushed (to the front).”

In Minnesota, 16 of the state’s 67 state senators are women and 28 of the 134 house representatives are women. Nearly 32 percent of state lawmakers are women, putting Minnesota in 11th place for the number of women serving in the Legislature.

Between 2017 and 2018, the number of women serving in the Minnesota Legislature dipped slightly, from 65 total to 64.